Book Review: The Outsider — Stephen King

If you have any experience with The Dark Tower series, it doesn’t take long to realise that the works of Stephen King are all connected, even if the links are sub-dermal. The Outsider presents itself at first as if it were a straight crime drama, like Mr. Mercedes, but as the impossibility of the crime presented becomes more apparent, we are asked to accept that perhaps something else is at play; like End of Watch, as it turns out. This leads to one of King’s bigger works of pastiche: at times The Outsider seems to be echoing Salem’s Lot by way of It with a light brushing of Bill Hodges’ finest moments. The result isn’t a bad novel, but it is one that peaks early and never quite recovers its momentum.

After Terry “Coach T” Maitland is arrested at a baseball game in front of 1,588 spectators, the town of Flint turns against him. Police investigator Ralph Anderson has incontrovertible evidence that Maitland killed eleven year old Frank Peterson, but Maitland has an airtight alibi. As the impossibilities of Maitland’s guilt continue to pile up, Anderson doubles down on his conviction, and Maitland’s friends look further afield for answers.

The first third of The Outsider is some of King’s finest work, in a career littered with fine works. The classic small town feel King has honed across the years meets with a crime procedural thrown slightly off-kilter and it works well. The whole book could have been about this sequence of events and you might never have minded that it never opened up. But open up it does, and after that it can’t help but taper somewhat.

The key problem with the second and third acts of The Outsider is that King’s protagonist focus is hazier than usual: by the time you realise that Ralph Anderson is supposed to be a sympathetic figure, the man has exhausted whatever sympathy he had been allocated, and he has a long way to claw his way back up to respectability. King has had far more wicked characters make greater leaps to sympathy — as recently as last year’s Sleeping Beauties, with its exquisitely realised Frank Geary — but up to the end, Anderson doesn’t seem worthy, even as a flawed protagonist.

King has more luck with another character, a different outsider, introduced around the halfway mark. She provides much of the investigative legwork and it’s difficult not to warm to her, but she doesn’t work as well as a foil for Anderson as one might hope. This character is the true heart of the book, the drawcard to reward the Constant Reader, yet she also unlocks The Outsider’s Council of Elrond problem.

The Outsider has the convening of councils to cope with their constituents’ crises of conscience – just like Salem’s Lot – but they take up many more pages and recycle information that both us and the characters already know. At no point does the reader need to suspend disbelief; they are, after all, reading a Stephen King novel. There is good reason for King to want to show the investigation process, yet the desire to both show and tell hinders the development of a novel that essentially stops for a giant stretch of time.

The pastiche carries on into the finale, which is familiar to the point of feeling like King has explicitly rewritten one of his earlier works. It’s good reading, but the build-up and the payoff don’t quite meet each other; the consolation lies in knowing that we are supposed to recognise what King has done and where he is going, but it smacks more of King’s desire to return to old stomping grounds than it does to explicitly satisfactory storytelling.

The Outsider mixes some of King’s best work with a good, if slightly rusty, caboose slapped onto the back. Some of its lesser elements will inevitably age well if King follows through on any of what he appears to promise between these pages, but as it stands, The Outsideris a good if not fully cohesive novel.

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